‘Relic’ is a 2020 “family” horror drama film that was released on July 3, 2020 on VOD in North America. The film was the directorial debut of Natalie Erika James and was based a screenplay by James and Christian White, and produced in part by Jake Gyllenhaal. It stars Emily Mortimer as ‘Kay”, a middle aged workaholic, and the daughter of Edna, the fading family matriarch played by Robyn Nevin, who is grandmother to troubled and set adrift Sam who is the daughter of Kay. Relic premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2020 to mostly positive reviews, though there are some like this one that echo my own feelings very well.
So, before, I get too far into this things, I do want to offer up to you, my dear readers, a spoiler warning.
*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR RELIC*
I feel like there should maybe be a content warning included here as well, so I will put one in for some discussion of ageism, ableism, stigma, disease, and death. I will be discussing this film from the lens of someone who has been a caregiver for people with dementia, and this will include some graphic discussions of the nature of this type of work. And again, this review will contain SPOILERS FOR RELIC.
So, I wanted to start this one off by discussing the definition of the word ‘relic”. From Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word reads as follows:
rel·ic | \ ˈre-lik \
1a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr
b: SOUVENIR, MEMENTO
2 relics plural : REMAINS, CORPSE
3: a survivor or remnant left after decay, disintegration, or disappearance
4: a trace of some past or outmoded practice, custom, or belief
Relic is also a commonly used (at least where I’m from in Canada) pejorative word used to describe the elderly. A comment I found recently in a comments section regarding the coronavirus and the elderly read as follows: “Who cares about those old relics? They’re going to die soon anyways”
I’d like you to keep these two thoughts in mind as we go through this review.
Now, before we go into the review, I want to center myself and my work, without revealing too much of my own power level so as to be best understood the lens from which I am choosing to examine Relic, and to talk briefly about my own experiences with caregiving.
When I was twelve, my grandfather with Parkinson’s disease moved into our family home from a tiny Indian reservation in Ontario with severe and significant post traumatic stress disorder and other health conditions. As my parents both worked full time, it became up to me, in a way, to be the one to take care of him. I would prepare us meals, fetch his cane, and assist with other activities of daily living. In my culture, those who care for an elder are often said to gain some of the wisdom from those who have a foot in this world, and a foot in the next, which is a commonly used metaphor in how First Nations peoples understand dementia in that the belief is that some people move back to their Creator in one go, while others, those with work left to do on this earth, stories yet to tell, will leave piece by piece. Watching my grandfather’s body betray him, and finally his mind, I was taught many lessons in understanding the nature of loss that comes with losing an aged loved one to the diseases of age, and how the body, can and often does fail.
After his passing, the spark ignited in me to my calling, and I realized that I wanted to serve others. When I worked in servitude, I felt the only kind of job satisfaction I’ve ever known. So, I got my license and became a caregiver in my early 20s and I began providing in home and in hospital care to elders, and eventually specialized into what is referred to as “lockdown dementia” care – this is for severe cases of neurocognitive impairment, and usually indicates total care, and can unfortunately mean working with combative people, or even violent people. The stories of dementia patients killing each other in care homes, are unfortunately very real.
Now, to fully understand Alzheimer’s and dementia, that’s a whole other article I could type up, but instead I will briefly summarize, and I’m going to use lay terms as much as possible and I will be focusing mostly on Alzheimer’s disease, which is under the umbrella term of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurocognitive disease that is caused by the accumulation of “plaque” and “tangles” in the brain that inhibits the normal functioning of healthy brain cells and eventually leads to brain damage – quite literally brain injuries that are permanent and result in a specific set of symptoms – confusion, changes in mood, inability to remember recent events while past events will remain usually quite clear, paranoia, bodily function changes, and eventually death. Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease. It is not considered to be a normal part of aging, but with advances in medical science and our life expectancies, as people are living longer so too are they living with complicated diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s and other dementias (From Alzheimer.ca). Dementia is literally defined in its most base form as “the away mind”, and is used as an umbrella term to describe age related changes, whether normal or not, in cognitive functioning.
Alzheimer’s effects the brains of those diagnosed with the condition in specific, repeatable and predictable ways (for the most part, though there are variations, like in the case of Terry Pratchett), but what is less predictable is how families will deal with having a loved one with this disorder. Some families react with denial, some with guilt, anger, some will put their relatives “in a home”, and either never come and see them or come to see them near constantly out of feelings of guilt or late stage devotion, and some never truly accept what is happening to them and their family.
In my line of work, Alzheimer’s disease is colloquially referred to as “the long goodbye”, long, because, instead of losing someone in an instant like say from a stroke or heart attack, or car accident, with Alzheimer’s, you lose pieces of them each day, little by little. Your “loss” of your loved one is ambiguous and more figurative, at least at first. You haven’t ‘lost’ the person, their body is still present, but you’ve ‘lost’ what made them a person to you. Gone are grandma’s sugar cookies, her knitted blankets, the painstakingly quilted blankets, gone is fishing in the lake with grandpa, endless trips to the ice cream truck on hot summer days, gone are the stories, the songs, the knowledge.
Eventually, what you are left with is something or someone who looks like your aged loved one on the outside but is almost completely alien, at least to you, on the inside.
Relic, opens shortly before all of what I’ve just talked to you about. Kay, the daughter of Edna gets a phone call from Edna’s neighbours that Edna has been missing from her home. She opts to go out to Edna’s secluded country home with her daughter Sam in tow. It’s clear from the opening of Relic that Natalie Erika James is trying to convey some of the darker aspects of family relations. Sam and her mother appear to be somewhat at odds, having different values and beliefs for what Sam’s future should entail.
Kay, the baby boomer, is in love with her work, throwing herself into it, the figurehead workaholic. This is interesting to me, because “workaholics”, are tropes we find often in media, and in some ways they are glorified. Prominent addictions physician Gabor Mate has likened workaholism to be no different from any other kind of addiction and is rooted in the same desire to escape pain, and trauma (Gabor Mate on Workaholism). And it becomes clear that the character of Kay is written to be in a significant amount of pain, though I don’t necessarily feel that Emily Mortimer was convincing to me in this portrayal of pain. I actually felt like her portrayal of Kay was incredibly wooden and lacked not only depth but also seemed tinged with a kind of ambivalence towards both her daughter and her mother. I will discuss this further later on. I will also be discussing the roles of Sam, Kay and Edna in a slightly neo-pagan manner in terms of the “maiden, mother, crone”, tropes.
Sam and Kay arrive to find Edna missing from her home, having not been seen for three days. The house is in disrepair, mould has begun to take over the walls, everything seems slightly off and out of the norm, especially to Kay’s eagle eyes who find every idiosyncrasy and out of place knick-knack with very little difficulty – the easy chair not in it’s place, cryptic Post-It notes strewn around, bearing phrases like “Don’t Follow It“, and “My Name Is Edna“. Now, Relic was sold to me as a family horror piece, to challenge Hereditary and The Babadook for the crown of dark family secrets made reality. When I had originally watched the trailer, I had been taken very much in by the slick editing, and how similar in appearance the film seemed to be to Hereditary. The concept of family-horror is so necessary in these times, as we the aging millennials finally begin to undo the taboos and family secrets that were our upbringing with our baby boomer parents. All the things we were told we should not ever talk about, are just another passing tweet. The catharsis, especially, online and in our media is so very real and poignant.
It was in this catharsis, of seeing the post it note with “My Name is Edna” that I felt an icy knife twist into my belly. Grandmother. My grandmother, Mary, was from Ukraine. She died of Alzheimer’s disease last July 3 in 2019, the release date for Relic being one year after her passing. One of the last things we did together as a family was wheel her hospital bed so we could tearfully watch the July 1st Canada Day fireworks as her body struggled to keep her heart beating.
There’s a line in Relic close to the beginning between Kay and Sam where Sam says, “your mother changes your nappies and when she gets old you change hers”. This is a profound piece of truth. When my mother couldn’t, my grandmother was the one who raised me, fed me, clothed me. At the end of her life, I fed her, even when she didn’t know who I was. I felt that line cut into me. After her passing, I had found a small notebook of hers where she had practiced her handwriting over and over, filling the pages of the notebook with “My name is Mary“.
From the outset, I was fairly certain this film would be nothing like the supernatural fare depicted in the obvious trailer baiting, and would likely be closer to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 found footage horror film “The Visit”. I knew there was going to be no monster, and that the real monster would be the “Great Metaphorical Beast” – dementia, death, age.
Now, don’t read me wrong here, I don’t mean to trivialize – death, age – these are some of the most primal human fears. Part of our lizard brain has evolved so we find the scent and sight of death, decay, and sick people to be a source of deep visceral discomfort for at least most of us. It is this very discomfort that has sanitized much of our society’s interactions with sick and dying people. Hospitals, and medical professionals do much of this work for us, where pre-Civil War, it was common place for this to be a family’s job, and corpses were usually laid in state within the family home, sometimes for days.
But even with this pre-cognition that I had about Relic, that it would be about the horror of old age, of death and dying, I was immediately hesitant.
While I recognize that these are natural and primal fears of any human being, I felt myself concerned regarding the subject of stigma.
Like the pejorative definition I gave you at the top of this article for the term relic, as one used to insult the elderly, I was immediately concerned with how Relic would be taking on its exploration and portrayal of dementia and death. Much of the language we use for same, can be incredibly negative and stigmatizing – “old timer’s disease”, “grandpa went crazy” etc. You can read more about stigma and stigmatizing language at Alzheimer.ca In some ways, it’s only natural – we fear what we don’t understand, so we use stigmatizing language to distance ourselves from the object of our fear or even our disgust.
While I will agree that some of The Visit’s portrayals of Alzheimer’s disease, the phenomenon of Sundowning (which was the original working title for The Visit), the paranoia, the restlessness, the forgetfulness, was accurate, and accurate to almost a fault, the portrayal of the “grandparents” in question as crazed murderers was problematic and stigmatizing. While I would be lying to say that violence isn’t a reality, especially at old age care and nursing homes (I myself have had my hand broken by a violent dementia patient), this is far from the norm, and I worry that these stigmatized portrayals of demented people harm the compassionate understanding that is most necessary for our most vulnerable elders.
The Taking of Deborah Logan is a 2014 found footage horror film that was supposed to document Alzheimer’s patients and instead found something far more sinister, as pictured above. These decidedly ageist portrayals of the elderly, specifically elderly women, are not foreign to media and belay not only a fundamental disgust with aging but also an ableist notion on disease, as well as an exploitative examination of the visceral abhorrence of an aging female body, which is very well illustrated in films like Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem, Robert Eggers’s The VVitch, and even in the Hårga cult members of Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The sagging, often corpulent bodies of the witches portrayed in these films are accurate representations of the aging female body and all its variants, shown to demonstrate the wildness of these women, and their nature that is untethered to the social norms of youth and beauty that we can see played out on the bodies of Anya-Taylor Joy and Sheri Moon Zombie. They both are powerful witches, but their young bodies do not command the same level of disgust that Eggers and Zombie want you to feel about the bodies of the crone witches. Even David Lynch’s Dune elects to portray the Bene Gesserit as hideous to behold, a portrayal somewhat at odds with how they are described in Frank Herbert’s Dune series., though they do exist merely to enhance the plot for the males around them in the book, and have little to no goals of their own which you can find discussed more here.
Returning to Relic, I found myself taking these concerns with me. Will this portrayal of dementia and disease and death and dying be sensitive but horrific like Hereditary or even a social commentary like in Midsommar or Logan (and yes I mean the Marvel movie)? Will it instead be exploitative like The Visit? Are we as viewers being invited to laugh, or cringe at the concepts? Are we being invited to feel the horror of these things? Either of the person who is out of their mind and demented, or the family who has to experience that second hand? Well, Relic seemed to hum and haw over what it wanted you to do and it seemed to circle the point so many times.
When Edna returns, and is dishevelled, filthy, and unable to say just where she had been, the story moves into describing the seeming failing faculties of her mind. The paranoid late night phone calls, the changed locks, missing items, all the tell tale signs of Alzheimer’s disease/dementia, interspersed with what should be poignant moments of the family horror – the taboo emotions, guilt, remorse, grief, the ambiguity of the realization that your loved one isn’t really that person anymore and that rather than getting better, they will, until their death, only get worse.
These emotions are so powerful and so ultimately soul destroying and real and I’ve born witness to them, not only as one who has first hand lived experience, but as one who has been present as a caregiver when the families of those I am caring for are having these discussions. In my career, I have seen so much second hand pain, and felt these emotions so powerfully, that I have been overwhelmed by them, often ending my shifts, the way many other caregivers before me and after have and will – by crying in my car, electing to stain the interior with my tears rather than bring home any of this pain.
I prepared myself for the emotional deluge of these situations to play out in the film, and instead found the interactions to be brief, and surprisingly bloodless, occasionally and only occasionally dancing me towards the emotional ruin that I was expecting.
There is one such moment that comes close – when Kay finds Edna burying her photograph albums in the backyard, the scene is sort of masterfully shot, actually, and Edna, with tears in her eyes tells her daughter, “I’m losing everything” and I was reminded of a person I was giving care to, grabbing my arm in a firm clawed grasp to tell me in one particularly vivid and lucid moment of clarity in the midst of a paranoid dementia tirade – “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, you know?”
I remember that moment crushing me, and I’ve described it at length to many counsellors who have told me that that moment in my career was what is called “The Abyss” and it is what caregivers are there to be present for. The Abyss, is a colloquial and one could argue also pejorative stand in term for “human experience”, and caregivers, the silent sentries of that experience, similar to George R.R. Martin’s order of the Silent Sisters in his Game of Thrones books, are there to “bear witness” with those in their stead to that experience (More on the concept of “bearing witness” here. ) That is to say, caregivers don’t do anything or say anything, it is the simple presence of same that is important, like a Virgil guiding a penitent through the Hell of being human. How many times has someone told me, over and over, a broken record – we are a support service, we aren’t in the business of curing anything. And to that question I’ve always found myself silently asking – how do we look over the precipice of human experience with only a novelty gas station lighter?
So when this interaction happened in Relic, Kay’s wooden almost sterile and bland response to Edna’s obvious existential dread and grief, was, to me, completely inappropriate. I instead found myself much more drawn to the realism of the portrayal of Edna’s “sundowning”. Sundowning is a natural phenomenon exhibited by roughly 66% of Alzheimer’s / dementia patients in which symptoms of their illness appear to get worse in the later afternoon, and through to the night. There are some theories present with this phenomenon and most center around a perceived inability for the brain to process the changing of the light in our Circadian rhythms, causing increased confusion, and possibly fear (More about sundowning can be found here). Relic portrays Edna’s sundowning in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it set of moments. First, Edna presents Sam with a family ring, hinted to be an engagement or wedding ring. Sam’s face crumples as she accepts this gift from her grandmother while Edna’s face is solemn, almost motionless. Later on in the day, Edna spies Sam wearing the ring and viciously attacks her, pulling it off of her, all while accusing Sam of stealing from her.
I felt this piece to be a bit of realism. Paranoia is a common symptom of dementia. But again, as with a lot of this film, the delivery, is flawed.
When Edna hands Sam her ring, she is so stiff, almost plastic, even, much like Kay when she happens upon the buried photo albums.
There is symbology in the handing over of a ring, from a crone to the maiden, sort of a handing off the torch of sorts. Psychologist Erik Erikson touches on this thought in his stages of psychosocial development. The final stage of 65+ being one marked by the two opposing questions of Integrity versus Despair, meaning that the fundamental question that we ask as we age past 65 and reflect on our life, involves examining our own happiness or unhappiness. Are we happy with our life? Do we feel regret and therefore despair? (More on Erikson’s theory can be found here).
The handing over of this family ring, is a fundamental moment. Edna looks back at her life while simultaneously looking forward to the life of Sam. She wryly says, “You may need it someday”, showing that she too is looking out for Sam’s future, however, in a more abstract way than Kay who is concerned more about job stability rather than a question so philosophical as, “are you happy?”
Through these moments, we begin to see sinister, oft supernatural appearing touches. Kay dreams of a rotting corpse, her great grandfather abandoned and left to die in an old cabin, of which the stained glass windows were salvaged for Edna’s now current home. Guilt, remorse and grief become the three most prevalent emotions. Kay realizes Edne is not able to care for herself and begins assessing nursing homes, as places to ensure her mother will receive appropriate care. There is a moment, when after touring one such home, Kay is shown crying in her car, and I recognize that emotion, having talked about it just a few paragraphs past. I resonate fundamentally with that hopelessness, that guilt.
I’ve been there myself when the family had to begin discussing just what to do with our own matriarch. At least for me, the guilt I felt when I was crying in my car after the decision was made to place my own grandmother into a home, was that in a different world, I’d be calling my grandmother asking for advice. In times of crisis, so many of us simply want our mothers and our matriarchs, whether family or chosen. The knowledge that we may never again be able to seek that instinctual comfort from our mother figures is a particularly raw piece of loss. My own mother has communicated to me that she often feels sorrow because she just wants to ask her mother for advice – the best way to sew a type of fabric, the best thing to use for aphids, what to do when the bread won’t rise, and she feels robbed of these moments.
Back to Relic, Sam, who has softened significantly to her grandmother, offers to move in with her, which is foolhardy. Most family members are never equipped for the sheer demands of being a live in caregiver, and how it changes how we perceive our family. But I appreciated this depiction, this ignorance of the “maiden” of youth, in this sense. But this sours as Sam begins to understand the darkness that is permeating not only the mouldering house of her grandmother, but also the darkness permeating the mind of her grandmother. And this, unfortunately, is where Relic really began to lose me.
The home of Edna is shown from the beginning to be in a state of extreme disrepair, similar to and metaphorically speaking, her mind, and less metaphorically, her body – which is shown to have a black spot on the center of her chest, which reminded me of the literary useage of a “Black Spot”, stemming from Treasure Island’s Robert Louis Stevenson, and this line from the book:
“It was around about the size of a crown piece. One side was blank, for it had been the last leaf; the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: “Without are dogs and murderers.” The printed side had been blackened with wood ash, which already began to come off and soil my fingers; on the blank side had been written with the same material the one word “Depposed”.
Deposed. What a perfect word, for the downfall of both kings, pirates, and here, the family matriarch. Or even, if we want to bring the symbology back to horror – the use of the black spot as harbinger of death in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery“.
Or even, a favourite song of mine, by Murder by Death:
“the black spot, the black spot, my heart just ain’t in it no more”
Now, if we are to examine Relic from a metaphorical standpoint, we could easily make the inference that the house – often believed to be the crowning achievement of someone’s life, the build up and physical representation of achieving adulthood as a homeowner – for the home of Edna to be moulding, decayed, reflects not only her mind but her relationships. However, in short order, and with the use of impossible space, as seen similarly in Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves“, the house comes to represent a simultaneous real and imagined Hell of the inside of Edna’s mind. And I use the word simultaneously – in that, my partner Scotty and myself both had wildly different readings of this film, which I will elaborate on.
Edna is portrayed to be living in fear of a kind of spiritual or supernatural entity that haunts the corners of her home and her mind. And Sam, is soon pulled into this supernatural experience, and gets lost in a labyrinthine closet space, where she finds discarded post-it notes, indicating that this space may very well be where Edna was “lost”. As Kay cares for Edna in Sam’s absence, she puts her into a nice hot bath after Edna urinates on the floor, which, hey, if you have a demented relative, they shouldn’t be left alone in a bath EVER, but really, this film was taking such a swan dive at this point that I’m not really going to get my panties in a bunch over this lack of any basic common sense.
Kay finds Edna stabbing at the black spot on her chest and is then pursued through the home by an increasingly demonic and incredibly limber Edna who is howling, bellowing with inhuman rage. As Sam and Kay appear to be on different floors of the darkened dilapidated home, I read this metaphorically – two family members, not quite on the same page about their aging loved one. Haha, nope. They were literally on different floors of a magical house. Then Edna comes clobbering through the wall and is beaten down by Kay with a lead pipe, just like a monster out of Silent Hill.
Just as the mother and daughter are about to leave and flee to safety, Kay turns back to hear Edna, who appears completely, demonic mutter her name. She refuses to abandon her mother, and goes to her, locking out Sam in the process. She tenderly carries her demon-mother, the grotesque Mother-Suspiriorum, upstairs, where she begins to flay the familiar skin of Edna away from a shrivelled blackened fetus-goblin underneath, revealing that Edna’s “dementia” was in fact a demon of sorts? Ah, don’t worry kids, grandma didn’t have a brain injury caused by a long term cognitive illness, it was just demons this whole time. Problematic. In a moment of sweet maternal care, Kay embraces her demon mother on the bed, as Sam looks on before joining them, to form the occult image of the maiden, mother, and the crone. As Sam watches her mother soothe her dying grandmother, she finds herself drawn to a black spot on Kay’s neck, signifying that her mother is next to be “possessed”.
And then the film ends.
So, as I said above, Scott and myself both had wildly different interpretations of the film. I’ve tried in some ways to illustrate how I interpreted some of the more symbolic and metaphorical pieces of the film throughout this review. I felt like the impossible space of the home, was more, metaphorical than actual, and I also felt like the demon-grandma was more metaphorical than actual and unfortunately, I’m wrong on both accounts. The story was demonic and supernatural rather than metaphorical. Which is what Scott had seen instead of the metaphor.
And it made me see red.
While I understand what was attempted here with this film, I feel like some majorly important moments were completely squandered. A demon grandma? Really? That has about the same emotional depth and meaning as a Zak Bagans Ghost Hunter episode. Relic was marketed as this smart, slick, A24 esque art piece, that instead chose to shrug off any of the more intelligent and emotional commentary that could have been made about Alzheimer’s, aging, dementia, death and dying, etc, and elected to go with the paint by numbers route of haunted house possession trope and it was made all the worse for this decision.
For a film claiming to want to be about the family horror of dealing with Alzheimer’s, the portrayal of an Alzheimer’s patient as a FUCKING DEMON is incredibly harmful, untrue, and frankly, from this caregiver’s perspective – disgusting. I understand how upsetting it can be to see loved ones in the throes of dementia, or psychosis or even delirium – but these people are NOT, as Relic might ask you to believe, fucking slavering GHOULS cursed with something contagious and you might be the next contestant on hey Grandma’s fucking possessed.
I also want to firmly and humbly refute, this notion that our aged and demented loved ones are no longer “people”, and something inhuman, with this video from documentary ALIVE INSIDE (2014), which shows the power of music for Alzheimer’s patients.
From a caregiver – I want you to know – they’re still in there.
They aren’t demons. They aren’t monsters. They’re just sick people. Sick people who need love and care.
Now, I understand how some people could be moved by this film, and I recognize that. I don’t think my lived experience is gospel, the only knowable truth, and I can only speak for myself here. I don’t expect any casual movie goer to examine Relic or really any other film with the same lens I examine my relationship to media.
That said – this movie was a failure for me. The wooden acting, the SyFy-esque demonic grandma, the seemingly shoe-horned in impossible space, and rotten grandpa in the garden shed came off as exploitative rather than emotional. Finding out that the grandma was originally supposed to be a dollhouse maker, and was changed due to Hereditary reminded me of a quote from a much better film called Art School Confidential, spoken by John Malkovich:
“Now, everyone don’t be so hard on Jerome. He is attempting to achieve the impossible. He is trying to sing in his own voice using someone else’s vocal cords.”
DIAG RATING: 3 demon grammas out of 6
A middle of the road paint by numbers film that promises to explore family horror, but never makes good on the same.
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